The long and the short of it

In this article, reproduced from our latest issue of Ozwords, Julia Robinson investigates Aussie terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup.

Recently we received this query from a Victorian reader: ‘I am writing to ask about the term “short soup”, as in the Chinese wonton soup. Other non-Australian speakers of English are unaware of this phrase, it seems. Is it uniquely Australian and when did it originate?’ (J. Bookman)

Short soup and its companion long soup are indeed Australian terms for Chinese wonton soup and Chinese noodle soup respectively. The name long soup probably derives from an English speaker’s way of describing the kind of noodle typically found in the dish; long soup contains long, thin noodles. Short soup contains wontons, a type of small dumpling formed by wrapping small, flattened pieces of noodle dough around a savoury filling. The first evidence for both terms occurs in the 1880s, with long soup appearing a few years before short soup. In early evidence they often occur together.

A longtime resident of Sydney’s Chinatown, Norman Lee, explained the difference between the soups, in recalling the people who frequented Chinese ‘cook shops’ in the early part of the 20th century: ‘It was good food—genuine stuff. Most of the customers were Chinese; only the Australian drunks came then. When they ordered plain soup with noodles, they called it long soup. With won tons, it was short soup.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2007)

Much of the early written evidence occurs in the context of Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street, Australia’s first Chinatown, established in the 1850s. An early reference appears in the Australasian newspaper, in a full-page illustrated special on ‘The Chinese Quarter in Melbourne’. It is written as an anthropological investigation, and as with many similar newspaper reports of the period, the tone is frequently racist:

Very curious was it to watch them at their meal. In front of each was a bowl of soup of which, by the way, the Chinese distinguish two kinds—‘long’ soup and ‘short’ soup. This was ‘long’ soup, and it seemed to be a kind of chicken broth, thickened with flour. ‘Short’ soup is different—we do not exactly understand in what way. However, the gentlemen pictured above were busy with their ‘long’ soup, drinking it with little earthenware ladles. (21 April 1888)

This and many other contemporary references show that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the names of these dishes were becoming familiar to non-Chinese Australians, and were seen as typical of Chinese cuisine.

A good number of references to short soup and long soup are found in court reports of the period. This may suggest that Chinese food was cheap, and that Chinese cooks were catering to a larrikin clientele who could not afford to eat at other restaurants. Fights and arguments between customers and staff were liable to break out over a bowl of soup:

Brawl in a Cook Shop. … Three men went to [Quon Cheong’s] cook shop in Heffernan’s-lane about midnight last Saturday, and after being served with ‘long soup’ broke a saucer and a soup basin, for which they declined to pay. Then they blackened his eye, split his lip open and gave him a severe mauling. (Melbourne Age, 30 June 1910)

In one case short soup was used as code for a sly grog operation: ‘Melbourne, August 24. Two Chinese cook shop proprietors were to-day fined £40 each on a charge of sly grog selling. Two revenue officers called at the establishment and asked for “Short Soup”, and were supplied with several bottles of ale.’ (Hobart Mercury, 25 August 1909)

Later evidence confirms that short soup and long soup were increasingly recognised as standard fare in Chinese eateries, if still considered exotic by many. In the late 1920s the Goulburn Evening Penny Post claims that there are ‘hundreds of Melbourne citizens who regularly relish the Oriental dishes of Little Bourke-street short soup joints’. (13 April 1927) The taste for Chinese food was well-established by mid-century. In the 1960s the Australian Women’s Weekly published a recipe for long soup (with chicken stock, vermicelli noodles, and shallots), and in an article on the favourite food of local pop groups, the Weekly records the lead guitarist of the Strangers commenting in the lingo of the time: ‘I could live on Chinese food. … Fried rice and short soup are rather groovy.’ (14 May 1969)

But what is ‘short’ about short soup? It is not the most obvious way to describe a wonton. Is short soup perhaps a calque—that is, a literal translation from Chinese?

Australian long soup and short soup are dishes in the style of southern China, because most Chinese immigrants who came to Australia in the 19th century came from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, either directly or via Singapore. Chinese linguist colleagues tell us there are no corresponding terms in Mandarin or Cantonese for long soup or short soup, but one scholar who is familiar with southern dialects has anecdotal evidence from Fujian of a term for wonton soup that translates literally as ‘flat food soup’. She notes that although the word for ‘flat’ may imply ‘thin’ and ‘small’, it does not directly correspond to ‘short’.*

Short soup does not appear to be a translation from Chinese, even from the most likely southern dialectal regions. In Guangdong province there is a term for soup containing long noodles that translates as ‘long noodle soup’. But this is descriptive, and does not precisely correspond to long soup. We think that these Australian English terms are a binary pair, and that short soup was named in contrast to long soup, in order to distinguish one from the other. Thus short soup does not really describe its ingredients, but rather tells us it is not long soup.

*With thanks to Wendi Xue and Dr Zhengdao Ye for their help. All errors are my own.

Julia-RobinsonJulia Robinson is a researcher and editor at the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC). She has contributed to a number of Australian Oxford dictionaries and ANDC publications, and is one of the editorial team currently working on the second edition of The Australian National Dictionary (forthcoming 2016).

ozwords-logoOur biannual newsletter Ozwords contains articles on various aspects of English, especially Australian English, in partnership with the Australian National Dictionary Centre. If you are interested in reading more on Australian English and hearing news from the Australian National Dictionary Centre, why not subscribe?

Read this edition of OzWords and find previous volumes here.

How Brands Grow Part 2


Following the success of international bestseller How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know comes a new book that takes readers further on a journey to smarter, evidence-based marketing.

This book is about the fundamentals of buying behaviours and brand performance – fundamentals that provide a consistent roadmap for brand growth, and improved marketing productivity.

This book will change the way you think about marketing forever.

How Brands Grow Part 2

Read Chapter One





How Brands Grow


Pippi Longstocking Colouring-in Competition

Last month Oxford University Press held a colouring-in competition to celebrate 70 years of the irrepressible Pippi Longstocking.

Every day we received a new parcel of pictures, and by closing date we had more than 600 entries from primary school students across Australia. There were many inventive entries that colourfully captured the characters from Astrid Lindgren’s tales, including Pippi (of course) as well as her friends, the mischievous monkey Mr. Nilsson and neighbours Tommy and Annika.

Choosing a winner was tough, so we hosted an office morning tea where everyone could vote for their favourites. After much deliberation, four winners were chosen:

1st - Thomas

In first place: Thomas – Year 5/6

2nd - Mitchell

In second place: Mitchell – Year 4









In third place: Iris - Year 4/5

In third place:
Iris – Year 4/5

In fourth place: Alice

In fourth place:








Each winner will receive a limited edition print for their class, featuring Pippi Longstocking and signed by illustrator Lauren Child.

Other highly commended entries were:


Runner up: Iris – Year 3/4

Runner up: Rebecca - Age 11

Runner up:
Rebecca – Age 11

Runner up: Riley - Age 9

Runner up:
Riley – Age 9














Thank you to all the schools who entered, it was clear that a lot of creativity and effort went into making these beautiful pictures.

Wine Facts You Didn’t Know

Wine has been enjoyed as a delicacy by many people around the world. Through the various techniques in preparation, there are endless varieties of wine to suit the diverse preferences of wine lovers. Its timeless influence has seen it span from historical cultures to the modern day. Here are some interesting facts you didn’t know:

Not all wines benefit from ageing

When fine wine is allowed to age, spectacular changes can occur which increase both its complexity and monetary value.  Ageing is dependent on several factors: the wine must be intrinsically capable of it; it must be correctly stored (in a cool place and out of contact with air); and some form of capital investment is usually necessary. The ageing of wine is an important element in getting the most from it but, contrary to popular opinion, only a small subgroup of wines benefit from extended bottle ageing.

Wine consumption may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease

There is evidence that those who drink moderately are less likely to develop coronary heart disease than either those who heavily drink or those who never drink alcohol. A growing number of studies conclude that the way alcohol is consumed – the pattern of drinking – is key to potential health benefits. Studies show that regular moderate consumption, predominately with meals, significantly reduces the risk of a heart attack. It is likely that it is the combination of alcohol, its phenolic compounds, and the usual consumption pattern of wine that makes wine the most beneficial alcoholic beverage for cardiovascular health.

Wine has often been mentioned in religious texts

Historically, wine was so important to the prosperity of the human population, that people saw it as a suitable offering to superhuman authorities. Along with animal sacrifices and offerings from other crops, liberations of wine were poured out to the gods by Italians and Greeks and there were similar practices in the Levant.

Grapes growing in vineyards may experience sunburn

Classical sunburn produces a round halo of burnt skin on the side of the berry facing the sun’s position in the western sky, as damage normally occurs in the afternoon. Whether exposure is harmful to the berry is arguable, and exposure to the sun encourages the production of a range of phenolic compounds, including quercetin, which are generally associated with wine quality, especially for red varieties.

9780198705383 Wine9780198705383
The Oxford Companion to Wine
Fourth edition


Visit the Oxford University Press website and enter the code 20Wine15 at the checkout to receive 20% off and free delivery* on the title above. Offer expires 31st December 2015.

Oxford Word of the Month – October: Flagfall


noun: 1 An initial minimum hiring charge for a taxi, as part of the overall fare. 2 A fixed initial charge incurred when making a call on a mobile phone.

Today mobile phone charges in Australia may include a flagfall fee—a fixed amount that is part of the cost of the call. The earliest evidence we have of its use is the following:

Major new market players AAPT and Primus have both entered the market with a discount call rate accompanied by a one-off, 12 cent a call connection flagfall. (Melbourne Herald Sun, 30 August 1997)

Flagfall in this sense is originally Australian, but is now used more widely. Where does the term come from, and why does it contain the element flag?

The mobile phone flagfall is a transferred use of an earlier Australian term used in taxi hire. Early taxis had a small mechanical lever, the ‘flag’, that could be seen from outside the cab. In the ‘up’ position it meant the taxi was for hire. When a passenger entered the cab, the driver turned the lever into the ‘down’ position to begin the fare. A flat rate was charged at flagfall before the taximeter began calculating the distance travelled. The New South Wales Government Gazette in 1931 defined it this way: ‘“Flag fall” means the amount of fare recorded by a taximeter immediately upon the flag being lowered to set the taximeter in motion at the commencement of a hiring.’

The introduction of electronic taximeters in the 1980s meant that the old mechanical flag became obsolete. Instead, the taximeter automatically recorded the fixed initial charge before the vehicle moved off. Since this charge had historically been called flagfall, the name continued to be used, despite taxis no longer having a visible ‘flag’ to raise and lower.

This is how flagfall became separated from its original reference to a flag, and came to mean simply an initial fixed fee for a service. The use of flagfall to describe such a charge for a mobile phone is a transferred sense of the taxi flagfall. Telcos have a history of charging initial fixed fees for some services, as our phone bills demonstrate. However, our long experience of these fees does not mean we like them, as this newspaper suggests:

In themselves every little tweak of a mobile phone contract can be justified—flagfall charges, off-peak discounts, cheaper rates for calling within the same network—but when you put them together, the net effect is to make it virtually impossible for consumers to find out which mobile phone plan is best for them. (Canberra Times, 18 January 2012)

Both senses of flagfall are included in the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (forthcoming 2016).